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More clout sought for special-ed team


Frustrated by the Baltimore school system's consistent failure to provide required services to special education students, an advocacy group for the disabled asked a federal judge yesterday to give a court-appointed team a say in key staffing decisions throughout the district.

The Maryland Disability Law Center is asking that an oversight team consisting of state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, city Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and a representative of the law center review all proposed staffing decisions above the rank teacher.

If the team finds that a staffing decision could affect compliance with laws governing services for special education students, the law center argues, the move should have to get the approval of all three team members before the superintendent could proceed.

In court papers, the disability center argues that Dr. Amprey has reneged on an April agreement to a "dramatic change in the structure" of school system management by repeatedly seeking "to pull the system back in the direction of unilateral management of special education . . . that has failed to cure a decade of noncompliance."

Dr. Grasmick, whom the disability center added to its decade-old lawsuit as a defendant in April, joined the center in seeking the order from U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II. The judge had an hourlong closed meeting in his chambers with both sides last night but issued no ruling.

The April agreement, which enabled the city to avert a contempt ruling in a decade-old suit on its handling of the disabled, created the team and stipulated that it "will have authority to make, review and direct all decisions affecting compliance" with special education requirements.

The oversight team is crucial to ensuring compliance with laws governing services for the city's more than 17,000 special education students, said Steven Ney, an attorney for the law center.

"It's not just a fight in the bureaucracy; it's a shift in the mind-set -- that fundamental shifts in control have to be made if these special education kids are ever going to get a decent education," he said. "Dr. Amprey's just operating as if the team doesn't exist."

Attorneys for the city school system, however, took a much narrower view of the team's role in staffing decisions and opposed the request by the disability law center and the state superintendent.

Coming at a time when Dr. Amprey is launching a major shake-up of Baltimore schools expected to affect hundreds of jobs, the school system argued in court papers opposing the move: "It would have disastrous effects on the school system as a whole by paralyzing the superintendent's ability to select and supervise employees."

Subjecting the city superintendent's staffing plans to the team, the school system said, would create "deep confusion about his authority" and create "enormous potential" for delays in filling jobs to bring about compliance.

In addition, the school system says, giving the team the authority sought by the disability law center would violate city and state law, city school board rules and collective bargaining agreements with unions.

The school system noted that the city charter specifies that the board is to confirm or reject the superintendent's nomination of principals, teachers, supervisors and others. But it did not say how the proposed role of the team would violate city or state law.

Stephen J. Immelt, an attorney representing the school system, and Dr. Amprey, both of whom attended the closed hearing, declined to comment last night.

The disability law center noted that the April agreement states that the team will operate by consensus and that the court would rule on disputes if either side objects to a proposal.

The team, created after the school system admitted for the first time widespread failings in special education programs, is to NTC meet weekly. It is charged with reviewing compliance with a 6-year-old consent decree, recommending changes in policy and ensuring that they are carried out.

At the heart of the legal battle is the city's consistent failure to comply with federal law on the length of time handicapped students must wait for formal evaluations and services, including speech and physical therapy, psychological counseling and enrollment in special education classes.

Federal law requires that the city assess a child's needs within 45 days of referral and place a child within 30 days of development of an "Individual Education Plan." The city has consistently failed to meet both of these requirements. That has forced students to go without services or others to wait more than a year for services ranging from school placement to psychological and speech therapy.

The law center, a Baltimore-based advocacy group, had sought a contempt of court ruling, charging the city failed to comply with provisions of a 1988 consent decree.

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